Untold Histories: Minerva Stone, Housekeeper (Part 1)

photo of Minerva Stone, with short hair, wearing long necklace and fur collar

“A managing housekeeper should be possessed of thorough executive ability. Necessarily she is well bred and well educated. She is, under the mistress, head of the house. She hires and discharges all servants. She sees personally that all work is thoroughly and properly done. She is, with constant kindness in her heart for human frailty, on the watch to detect and correct any wrongdoing on the part of any servant[.]”

So the housekeeper’s role is described in Mrs. Seely’s cook book…with chapters on domestic servants, their rights and duties, and many other details of household management, published in 1902. The author, Lida Seely, ran an employment agency in New York City patronized by the Fricks from 1906 to 1920. Unfortunately, a housekeeper she supplied them failed to live up to this description; a terse evaluation filled out by Mrs. Frick (below) declares Miss Meikrantz only “somewhat” willing and good-natured and gives incompetence as the reason for her termination.

While the Fricks lived at 640 Fifth Avenue, the mansion Henry Clay Frick rented before building his own home, the role of housekeeper saw regular turnover. This came to a stop with the hiring of Minerva C. Stone (1862–1943) on November 3, 1914. She would occupy this role for five years, departing not long before Frick’s death on December 2, 1919.

Employee evaluation form, with answers filled in by hand in pencil“Mrs. Stone” (pictured above), as she is referred to in all correspondence, joined the staff shortly before the Frick family moved into 1 East 70th Street. Just as the house was still coming together—many of the doors were missing their locks—so too was the household, for the previous housekeeper, Christy Mersereau, had just resigned. Her sharply worded letter of resignation, following a dispute with Mrs. Frick over broken china, is one for the ages:

“I am a free born citizen and in character and integrity I acknowledge none my superior, and when I think I am unjustly accused or anyone under me, I always have, and always will demand what I think is justice regardless of the consequences. … I challenge anyone, man or woman, in this country to run a house as large as this with as little friction and with as much good feeling as this has been run[.]”

Stepping into Mersereau’s shoes, Stone had an enormous task ahead of her. The mansion was brand new, and so were most of the senior staff. New rhythms for cleaning, bookkeeping, deliveries, and dining had to be established. Perhaps because of the time it took to get settled, the Fricks did not hold any large dinners until April 1915, nearly five months after they had moved in, by which point they were already on their second butler.

As housekeeper, Stone played a critical role, overseeing the work of the maids, laundresses, and the male house staff, such as the “usefulman” and watchmen (see below for a task list in her hand, transcribed at bottom). To this end, she kept meticulous records of payroll and monthly expenditures. She was also charged with managing the household’s transfer each summer from New York to Eagle Rock, the Fricks’ 104-room house at Prides Crossing, Massachusetts.

While the family and most of the staff transferred to Prides by late June, leaving a skeleton crew at 1 East 70th Street, for Stone the process of opening up the summer house began as early as April. A mammoth yearly operation, the work involved is described in both Frick records and in manuals of the time: carpets washed and relaid; curtains and windows cleaned; provisions laid in; and furnaces, boilers, ranges, and refrigerators examined and repaired.

Handwritten schedule of tasks for the day watchman at the Frick mansionA 1903 book, Millionaire Households and Their Domestic Economy, describes the preparations for this seasonal move as an almost military undertaking:

“[The housekeeper’s] plan of action must be mapped out well in advance of each change, and carried forward with decision and accuracy. Authoritative orders and unremitting vigilance…are the only means of accomplishing desired results.”

Whether by her own inclination or to meet the exacting standards of her employer—who had started out as a bookkeeper himself—Minerva Stone kept scrupulous payroll records and wrote detailed monthly expense summaries that show the house to be a bustling microeconomy. Her thorough record-keeping attests to the rigor with which she ran the household (sometimes to the dismay of other Frick employees—see Part 2 of this blog post for more). Her documents have been essential to our efforts to recover the names and experiences of those who worked at 1 East 70th Street.

The Fricks must have valued Stone’s ability to organize the new household: Her salary started at $100 per month and reached $150 within a year, making her the second highest-paid member of the household staff after Frick’s personal secretary, Alice Braddel. How did Stone become such an efficient manager, and what was her background? How did she relate to those who worked under her? We’ll consider these questions and take a closer look at her life before and after her time with the Fricks in our next post.

This blog post is part of Untold Histories, a research project on life behind the scenes at the Frick mansion when it was a private home. Research is still underway, so please contact academic@frick.org if you have any stories or documents to share, or with any questions. Discover more exciting education programs and digital initiatives at Frick Connections.

Minerva Stone in 1922. Photo courtesy of the Lovell Historical Society

Evaluation form issued by Mrs. Seely's Employment Bureau, filled out by Adelaide Childs Frick in 1907. Courtesy of The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives

Detail of day watchman’s task list, ca. 1914–19. Courtesy of The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives

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